by William Phuan
The Select Centre is a not-for-profit organisation based in Singapore. Firmly rooted in Southeast Asia, Select's core mission is to advance and facilitate the interflow of ideas and knowledge among different languages, cultures and disciplines through translation, adaptation and other forms of intercultural practice. We organise a year-round calendar of activities, including the TranslateSingapore translation festival; Translators Lab workshops; Literary Gateway, an exchange platform between Southeast Asia and Singapore; as well as mentorships, residencies and school workshops. In the following, I would like to present Sa’eda Buang's "Razi," which has been translated from Malay into English by Kiara Kuek, Syahidah Mohamed Sodri and Zuraidah Ehsan as part of our Translators Lab 2015, co-organised by The Select Centre and Writers' Centre Norwich. The workshop leader for the Malay-to-English track was Harry Aveling.
By Sa’eda Buang
Tanslated from Malay by Kiara Kuek, Syahidah Mohamed Sodri and Zuraidah Ehsan.
I could only watch him. He was spinning faster and faster. As fast as a spinning top. On his skinny legs, he continued spinning. Sometimes like a ballet dancer in the world of ‘The Swan Princess’. He stretched out his arms. Then later he lbrought them together, clasped them around himself tightly with his eyes closed and face facing the sky. Nothing else existed at that point in time, just the spinning and the hissing sound of spinning that was pounding on my ears. I was just watching the scene from the kitchen.
After becoming tired from all the spinning, Razi would always start to organize whatever he could find. This time, it was a stack of compact discs which he placed on top of each other so high that it was unable to defy gravity but leaned like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The whole time, his mouth was moving and producing sounds that were no longer unfamiliar to me anymore. Remarkably, whatever he arranged never toppled. Razi is good at arranging things. Leman, my youngest, or I might unintentionally make the stack topple. And when this happened, Razi always threw a tantrum, hurling himself around or hitting his hands on the wall until he injured himself. Because of that, Leman and I would never go near anything Razi arranged, even though I have may needed one of the items for a paricular reason. Ince I secretly tried to retrieve a book from the row of books which he had arranged horizontally like a train. However, Razi is sharp-eyed and attentive. He threw a tantrum the whole night, hitting his head repeatedly against the door grille.
Kak Miah will arrive in a short while. My chest hurts when I am reminded of Kak Miah’s constant talk and cajoling. Her purpose for coming that morning was to take Razi for another round of treatment. Though I have declined a hundred times, she insisted on bringing me to try the various methods.
“Why do you give up? Islam forbids us to give up. Not trying means giving up and you have gone against the principles of Islam”, lectured Kak Miah.
“I have never given up. Who said that I have given up? I have spent so much money on doctors and hospitals to treat Razi. Isn’t that effort? Isn’t that trying?”
“True, that was one effort and that is very good but if that effort does not bear any results, why stop? Why not try other ways?” Kak Miah’s direction was becoming obvious.
“What do you mean, Kak Miah?”
“If medical treatment has failed, it shows that the cure for Razi’s illness is not to be found there. Perhaps in a different field. In spirituality.
“Why must we switch to spirituality? Why are we giving up on the medical treatment when we just have to try harder? We haven’t tried all the aspects of medical science or all the different types of medicine yet. Maybe I’ve only tried 3 or 4 or 5 out of 10 medical ways that exist.” I said in my own defence.
“That means you still have thousands of dollars for further treatment in clinics and hospitals? You have all that? And only after that’s all run out, you will try other methods?” Kak Miah asked, Her sharp gaze stabbed into my already wounded heart. Wounded from constant disappointments. Wounded from constant pressure. Pressured by people around who do not really understand. Sometimes, the ones who do not rally understand refuse to try to understand; instead they try to make me understand their opinion without considering if I want to listen or not. And Kak Miah is one of those people.
“You have taken him to Australia and he is still not cured. What is stopping you from finding a cure in another way”? Kak Miah asked relentlessly.
“There is a cure for every illness,” I replied. “That is God’s promise in the Qur’an. Only that we haven’t found it yet.” I don’t know why my tone had become softer, as though I was not really convinced by my own words.
“And the cure could lie in other ways. Give it a try. We will not lose out. This particular healer medicine uses verses from the scriptures. He reads the Qur’an diligently and does zikir. Nothing he does is against Muslim law.”
I have not given up on my principles though I am feeling increasingly uncomfortable and my soul is drowning. Kak Miah, my sister, has never stopped giving me advice. Even though she lives far away, Kak Miah tirelessly visits Razi bearing all sorts of air jampi, air zamzam, talismanic oil, and other objects. Some for Razi to drink, others to be applied to his body and some for bathing. Every week or month, there was always some new cure that she would bring for her nephew.I always had to hide these from my husband, to avoid any rifts in our relationship.
My husband had grown tired of listening to Kak Miah’s explanations and recommendations. To him, any form of cure, apart from the medical, clashed with logic and the prophetic traditions. In this ambiguous domain, there was a thin line between superstition and knowledge and it was difficult to separate them. The boundary between what is false and what is obligatory is unstable. At any time faith and belief in oneness of God could be threatened and drawn onto heathenism. According to my husband, if all illness could be cured with breath and water, there would not be any need for hospitals. They could all be closed. Breath and water were all that was needed. It would be even better if breath and water could be bottled and exported. He joked that this was an industry that could be undertaken by the Malay community. If the Malays were now regarded as backward, to the point that even our traditional food was being marketed by others, this was the time for the Malays to seize the opportunity to market breath and water. It will definitely raise the name of the Malays in the medical field, beating all the professors in the East and West.
In God’s name, I have always agreed with my husband’s views. In fact I was amazed at his strong Islamic convictions, even though he had only embraced the religion for ten years, as long as we had been married. However, his ways of expressing his thoughts could be hurtful. Too critical. Too cynical. Understandably, probably because he is not a Malay, he is unaware of all the intricacies of our language. A blow to my Malay soul. Perhaps because I just listened to my wounded heart, I unwittingly always sided with my sister. Perhaps there is some truth to the saying, ‘blood runs thicker than water’. Or perhaps I just didn’t like anybody to be humilated. Whether their action was rational or not, no one should ever be belittled.
Razi continued stacking the compact discs, until the tower began to sway. He followed the swaying of the tower, bending his body from left to right. And now the stack was taller than his reach and was shaped like half a dome waiting to topple over.
The clock on the wall showed that it was 10 am. Kak Miah still had not arrived. I didn’t want to wait much longer. I had to send Razi to school. A special school which was quite far from where we live. The longer I waited, the shorter the time Razi had to receive his education. Although it was not much, it was still knowledge. Razi must receive all of it. His short school hours of just two hours should be fully utilised. Not one second should be wasted. I am grateful that Razi had been accepted to study there as it turned out that there were hundreds of children like Razi who had not been accepted. Lack of space. Lack of manpower. Lack of funding. Not enough of anything. Nothing was ever enough. And I couldn’t understand why it was still not enough, even though I had to fork out hundreds of dollars for monthly fees, which did not include the other fees for such things as Razi being taken out on an excursion by his teachers.
Under the scorching sun, I tried to hail a taxi. I held Razi’s hand tightly. Seeing how I was trying to stop a taxi, Razi was busily waving his arms about, waving at all the cars, buses, lorries and motorcycles. My neighbours who live in the same block waved at both of us.
“Tesi, tesi, tesi…..” Razi kept repeating till he entered the taxi.
The taxi driver turned around and looked a few times. He pulled a long face.
“What does he want? Can you ask him to sit on the left?”
“What’s the problem?” We had been treated with this same harsh stare a thousand times. I was sick and tired of it. Drivers who were more polite and considerate would make a quick glance and pretend that we did not exist. But this taxi driver did not seem to have a smidgen of sympathy at all.
“He is jumping and wiggling about. I can’t drive!”
My soul was protesting. I felt like getting out of the taxi immediately and walking, but I knew it was not possible. In the end, I did as the driver wanted. Anything, as long as we reached our destination.
“Can you hold on to him?”
I raised my voice in anger. “What else do you want? He’s not causing any problems.”
“I am sorry, don’t be angry. I once picked up a kid just like him. He was jumping about in my taxi and making a lot of noise. Before I knew it, he hit me on the head and nearly got me into an accident.”
At the school gate, crowd of parents were busy farewelling their children. I headed straight to a bench under a shady tree, where I would wait for Razi until he was taught how to hold a spoon and fork, how to express words that could get his message across, and all kinds of other God given abilities that are often taken lightly by a normal persons.
Oh God, what did I do wrong? When I was expecting Razi, I made sure I got adequate nutrients such as calcium, protein, fiber and lots of other things as well. I often read verses from the Quran to soothe Razi while he was still in my womb.
“Actually, there is a demon perched on the back of Razi’s neck. It is blocking Razi’s ability to behave like other normal children.”
“A demon from where, Kak Miah?”
“You have to realise that it is Satan’s duty to lead Adam’s descendants away from the right path.,” Kak Miah explained long-windedly. “He has made some of them go crazy, lose their minds, be mentally unsound or even abnormal, so that they cannot worship God. The faith of their parents’ is also severely tested.”
“So, there is no demon perched on the necks of normal people like you and me or Hollywood movie stars?
“There is, but the power of demon within us will be diminished as we worship God.”
“What about those who do not worship God? The demon must grow to the size of a mountain size in their case. Why don’t they go crazy?”
“They are tested in other ways and they will continue to be tempted to commit sins. I know you are angry, disappointed and think that I am being illogical. Try reading about spiritual treatment from the religious books that I have given to you. Things are thoroughly explained there.”
“Didn’t I read Quranic verses to Razi while he was in my womb? How could the demon still choose Razi?”
“The demon didn’t chose Razi, but you invited the demon to come. Do you remember when Razi was about 5-6 months old? You often took Razi to the playground during Maghrib. That was where the demon attacked you and griped on to Razi’s neck.”
“Why Razi among so many kids?”
It was hard for me to believe all these explanations. I remembered that when Razi was still a baby, he cried often till late at night. According to my mother, it was due to colic. Many times I took him to the doctors. Many times I laid heated betel leaves on his stomach. Many times I tried rubbing his stomach with various types of ointment, but he continued to cry his lungs out till dawn. My husband and I took turns to calm Razi but he carried on screaming. In the end, I lost control of my mind and faith. When my exhausted husband shut his eyes for a short moment, I threw the innocent child onto the mattress with all my strength. Razi’s crying paused for a moment. Perhaps he could sense that his mother had turned into a violent and cruel animal. But no matter how violent an animal is, a vicious tiger will not eat its cub. Shortly after, Razi continued his rage. Both his arms were stiff. His tear filled eyes were opened wide. His bloated stomach was getting harder. He was crying silently. Perhaps he didn’t want to accept the fact that a mother could turn into an animal when she lost her faith. Deep in my soul, I felt like dying. I have killed my humanity and stained the meaning of being a mother. Razi, Razi, what has Mama done? Razi, Razi, Mama would rather die.
Razi came out from his classroom wearing a cheerful smile. Mdm Wong, his pleasant and patient teacher, waved towards my direction. With his fair skin and big eyes, wavy black hair and ruby red lips, Razi looked adorable. At one glance, no one would ever suspect his imperfections.
“Mama…mama…mamamama…mamamma…” Razi kept repeating while we were on our way home.
Kak Miah still had not arrived. Or maybe she had come but left after waiting for a long time. Let it be. Hopefully this will upset her a lot and convince her to stop preaching at me.
I locked the kitchen and the door of the foyer, keeping Razi inside. I could hear him singing from the corridor. I had to rush to fetch Leman from his nearby school, leaving Razi and his world at home for about 20 minutes. It was not possible for me to bring Razi while walking to fetch Leman. I had to leave everything to God. Oh God, I surrender the well-being and safety of my child into Your mighty hands.
Razi was still arranging his stuff when I returned.
“Hello Razi….I love you!” Leman shouted to his brother who was dancing happily in his own world.
“Ababu…ababu…ababuuuuuuuu…” Razi continued turning while singing.
The phone rang. Oh God, don’t let it be Kak Miah. I hope not…
“Nani, this is Kak Ros. I need a favor. Please don’t be angry over what I am going to say. It’s about the birthday party this week.” It was only my neighbour.
“What do you need, Kak Ros? I have the samosas ready just as you instructed. I will fry them and bring them over tomorrow.”
She kept silent.
“It’s hard for me to say this. I swear I don’t mean to hurt your feelings. But….if possible, would you mind not coming to the party this weekend? My friends will be bringing their children. I am worried that they might frighten Razi. I will feel sorry when I see you running after Razi, trying to keep him still. And, what if Razi pulled down his pants again? I swear, I am not trying to upset you. I swear it. Or if you want to, bring Leman. Let Razi stay home with his father……”
“Mama….!” Leman shouted from the kitchen. Razi was frying the plastic potato wedges wrapper. The kitchen was filled with thick grey smoke, as grey as my feelings right at that moment. Oh God!
While waiting for my husband to return home, I took Razi and Leman to my mother’s house. The moment I stepped inside, I buried my face into my mother’s chest. Not knowing how long we hugged each other. We could vaguely hear Razi singing. I had no idea iwhich room he was in. Suddenly, Razi ran to me afraid.
“Mama,” Leman whispered. “Grandpa was praying and Razi danced in front of him. When grandpa was prostrating, Razi suddenly ran into him. Grandpa fell over. He got mad and hit Razi with a towel.”
* ---- *
The old man’s face was crinkled. His forehead was crinkled. My heart was crinkled.
He stared deeply at Razi, shaking his head. Razi was pulling his toy cars apart and putting them back together again. In front of Razi was a pair of scissors, a tub of water and an old, worn-out copy of the Quran. Kak Miah was seated next to me. She looked at the man without blinking. I was breathless. The cramped dark room made my soul feel even more cramped. Oh, my child! What have I done?
The old man took Razi’s right hand. He thoroughly inspected Razi’s pale, clean hand. Razi looked towards me.
He touched Razi’s throat. And then he held Razi’s neck.
“Be quiet, love… quiet, Razi. It’s ok. Mama is here.” I held his left hand tightly.
After closing his eyes and mumbling for a long time, the old man spoke with a deep voice. It echoed in the cramped room. How could there be echoes, when echoes only happen in an empty space? What sort of dramatic effect was this old man using? Or did it bounce about and echo in my empty unprincipled soul?
“Have you ever taken him out at maghrib?”
“Yes, pak. To the playground,” Kak Miah answered excitedly.
“When he was a baby?”
Kak Miah angrily rolled her eyes at me because I did .
“Why is it difficult, pak?” asked Kak Miah in a sad yet hopeful voice.
“It’s difficult because he is being held tight. His throat, stomach and head are all being held. But don’t give up. Muslims can’t just give up without a struggle.”
“Please help us, pak,” Kak Miah pleaded. We will do whatever we can.”
I had been through the first stage of the treatment. I had given some money to Kak Miah to sacrifice a buffalo. Kak Miah helped me to distribute the meat to neighbours and friends. My husband was still in the dark. My husband could not know. The sacrifice had to be done with the wish that all actions would be accepted by Allah, so that the next step would be eased. Hopefully.
At the second meeting, the old man stared deeply at Razi. This time, the crinkles on his face had lessened. But his eyes were burning red as ever. Kak Miah was waiting for his every instruction.
He pulled Razi closer. Razi still held on to his toys, his mouth singing the songs of his world. The man rubbed Razi’s abdomen. He rubbed Razi’s throat.
“Here you are. I will release your grip.”
“Mamamma….” Razi started to move towards me, as if he knew that something was going to happen to him.
The man took two metal balls, each the size of five-cent coins. He placed each ball into a banana and slowly fed it to Razi. Razi shook his head. He shut his lips tightly. The harder he held Razi to force him, the harder Razi fought. The old man held on to Razi tightly. So did Kak Miah.
“Mama…. Mamammmmma!” His tears flowed. Razi looked at me. Once again, I let him down. “Mama…mama… mammaaa…” I could only cry. In the name of love, I had allowed Razi to be tied down and forced to swallow metal balls. And my husband still did not know anything about it.
Razi complained about a stomach ache for three days. For three days, Razi did not want to look at my face. In the taxi on the way to and from school, Razi only looked outside while singing the songs of his world.
“Good! It looks like he has been tamed. He is more quiet, not as noisy as in the past. Good! Good! It looks like the treatment was effective. The demon has loosened its hold. We have almost succeeded. God willing.”
The old man’s face was less crinkled than the first and second times when we we met him again.
Kak Miah smiled.
Razi hugged me as hard as he could. He gazed at me, asking for help.
A helper suddenly appeared. I was startled. Razi was also startled and got ready to run away. Kak Miah quickly grabbed hold of Razi with the help of the helper. Once again, in the name of a mother’s love, I could only look as my child’s hands and legs were tied together.
“Mamma… mamamma… mamammmma!”
Be quiet, my child. Be quiet, love. Mama loves you. Mama wants to help you. Mama is not cruel. No.
Razi struggled like a lamb about to be slaughtered. His cries became louder. Louder, because his mother was not helping him to break free.
For half an hour, Razi was tied and left to cry. The space was filled with Razi’s sobbing as well as the old man and Kak Miah’s chanting. I could only bury my head in my hands. I did not want to witness my child’s pain. I could not bear to look into his forlorn eyes. Oh God, what is this world full of paradoxes!
He looked at Razi’s fingers, and then his hands, and his feet. He then took two wooden spikes and stabbed them into Razi’s right big toe. He twisted them as hard as he could. No sound came out of Razi. Razi’s eyes widened in agony. Only the tears flowed. The shell-shocked image of Razi as I threw him on the bed came back to me again. I had once more betrayed the purity of a mother. Oh, God! I had disappointed my own son. I had mistreated my own child, the child I gave birth to. A child is a gift from God. A child is someone entrusted to us by God. The old man smirked as Razi lashed out in pain. He strengthened his grip. Kak Miah chanted and shook harder. My son’s suffering continued. And this lousy mother could only cry and cry. My child, my child! What is all this for? Is this for you, or for me to settle my problems? Is this for your wellbeing, or for me to get over my embarrassment at having a child like you? Razi got weaker. And my husband still did not know anything.
Razi came down with a fever for a week. During that whole week, he did not want to eat. His thumb was found to be broken and had to be put in a cast for a month or two. Razi still refused to look at me. He stared emptily at the toys I placed in front of him. He left them untouched. His tears kept flowing. His eyes were forlorn.
“Mamamma… mammaaa…” I could still hear his weak voice. But every time I approached him, he kept quiet. He stopped singing. I rubbed his delicate fingers. Each time, Razi would pull his hand away from me. He hugged himself tight and kept his eyes shut. His soul that was buried in disappointment. I could no longer reach him
My husband was suspicious and did not believe the stories I concocted about how Razi fell ill. My lips were sealed.
Kak Miah continued to try to persuade me to continue with the treatment. Just a little bit left to do, she said. We are already halfway there. The signs are there. Do not waste the change. It was not Razi, but the demon in his throat, stomach and head, that was hurting. Was Razi not dancing less? Was Razi not becoming more obedient? Was this not a sign that the demon had loosened its grip on Razi? Stopping now was letting the devil win.
Who was the one following the demon’s orders? The child as pure and clean as a blank slate, or the mother whose faith had been broken by trials? What was the meaning of all this, if the mother had failed to calm the child’s soul? What was the meaning of all this if the mother had killed the child’s soul? Who could the child trust? Was it not the mother? What kind of mother destroys the trust of her child? What kind of mother cannot accept the realities of the uniqueness of her child? What kind of mother am I?
I wiped the beads of sweat from Razi’s feverish forehead. I kissed his tear soaked cheeks. Forgive Mama, Razi. Forgive Mama. You are special, my love. Special. No matter what anyone says, you are my child. My special child. God’s gift. Razi, you’re Mama’s child.
Sa’eda Buang (Author) is the assistant head of the Asian Languages and Cultures group at the National Institute of Education. She received her Bachelor of Arts and Masters of Arts from the National University of Singapore, and her Doctor of Philosophy from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She obtained her Diploma in Education from the Nanyang Technological University/National Institute of Education. She has received awards from the Singapore Malay Language Council for her poetry and short fiction. Her award-winning poem “Pustakaku dalam Remang Senja” (My Reading Room in the Twilight) was translated into Mandarin by Chan Maw Woh and featured in Lianhe Zaobao in 2003. Another award-winning poem, “Malang, senda & citra” (Misfortunes, comedy and image), was selected for the READ! Singapore 2010 campaign.
Kiara Kuek (Translator) came from a northern state of Malaysia, Kedah, a Malay majority community. She studied in the national schools in Malaysia before pursuing tertiary education in Singapore. Malay Language has been part of her life since childhood. She was a finance graduate and worked as a finance professional. In 2015, she decided to take up translation out of interest and graduated with Diploma in Translation from the Nanyang Technological University. In the same year she participated in the Translators Lab workshop by The Select Centre. She worked in the Malay to English track, led by Professor Harry Aveling, and completed the co-translation of "Razi," a short story by Singapore writer Sa’eda Buang.
Syahidah Mohamed Sodri (Translator) Biography not available.
Zuraidah Ehsan (Translator) worked in the heritage industry for 18 years. Her interest in language had led her to do translation work on a freelance basis, translating from English to Malay and vice-versa. Some of the work done include seminar papers and presenters’ bios, museum gallery guides and captions, and material data sheets. Apart from Malay and English, she has a basic understanding of the Javanese language. She is currently learning Arabic and French. She has left the heritage industry and now attempting to make a new career as a translator. Zuraidah took part in Translators Lab 2015, organised by The Select Centre.
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William Phuan is the Managing Director and co-founder of The Select Centre, a Singapore-based arts non-for-profit organisation that aims to advance translation and intercultural communication. He was formerly the director of The Arts House at the Old Parliament, a multidisciplinary arts and cultural centre with a focus on literary arts. He was the Programme Director of the New York Asian American International Film for seven years. Phuan has close to 20 years of experience working in various sectors, including journalism, government policy, film curation, and the non-for-profit arts sector in both the US and Singapore.